Thursday, December 27, 2018

2018: The Year in Review – The View from the Porch

Bluff welcomes visitors from around the world, with the current distance-record holder being a gentleman from Tibet who stopped by this past summer. Within a 50-mile radius centered in Bluff, local attractions stretch from Monument Valley to Hovenweep ruins to the Bears Ears National Monument and its glories. But some of the most interesting views of the area appear right here on the Twin Rocks porches.

Susie and I live in the large and sunny apartment above Twin Rocks Trading Post, with our nearest neighbors being the massive stone sentinels that provide the name and inspiration for the Post and Café. From this vantage point, we overlook the San Juan River valley town that is home for approximately 260 individuals (and I do mean individuals). As a former news photographer, I keep a camera ready for the ever-changing sideshow that is Bluff, Utah.

January means balloons in Bluff, specifically the Annual International Balloon Festival, now preparing for its 21st renewal. Balloon teams spread out in available open spaces all over town: the cemetery, fairgrounds and Twin Rocks parking lot being favorites. In front of the Trading Post, four crews used this area, more commonly filled with RVs and motorcycles during the season, to launch into the clear, cold Southwestern sky.

While the sunsets are real crowd-pleasers, many February mornings awaken clear and beautiful. When there are rare morning clouds on high, the contrast between the solid rocks of the bluffs and the lacy sky is striking. You need to have a camera ready for action as the cloud formations and lighting change by the moment.

Call them ravens, gaaghis, crows, or the Navajo Air Force, these jet-black scavengers are everywhere and serve as effective grounds-cleaners and the ultimate recyclers. Noisy and pushy, the ravens scour the gravel parking lot for spilled French fries, potato chips, or fry bread particles dropped by Café patrons. Recently, Barry has taken to bringing stale week-old bargain hot dog buns to feed two large blackbirds that have seemingly adopted him.

Our side yard is a circular parking area that has become the home of neighboring White Mesa Ute activities during April’s Founders Day celebration. The parking lot also serves as the official competition grounds for the Frybread Fling, a world-class competition that is uniquely Bluffoonian. The front porch is also the site of the face-stuffing experience called the Frybread Eating Contest.

In early May, one of the Navajo Nation’s finest basket weavers Betty Rock Johnson brings in one of her recently completed classic ceremonial designs. A tiny lady with immense charm, Betty is the matriarch and teacher of Joann, Chris, and other remarkable craftsmen and textile artists of the Rock and Johnson families of weavers.

In the Southwest, life appears where there is water. From a small crack in the flagstone floor of the apartment porch, a persistent sunflower inched upward during June. Apparently enough water was splashed around during our occasional irrigation of plants and cats to nourish a brilliantly yellow blossom a few days later.

In the previous 12-month period prior to July, Bluff only received 2.08 inches of rainfall. That amount was equaled in a three-day period when an early monsoon brought buckets of water in a very short time. Steve, along with Susie and Priscilla, stood outside and took selfies with the rainfall, just like all the other tourists witnessing something rare and special.

In August, dense smoke and haze from the Colorado and California wildfires reached Bluff, creating memorable sunsets and a rarity called air pollution. An overcast or cloudy series of days is unusual to the area that averages around 350 days of sunshine a year. If the sun does not show itself after three days, many local folks tend to get a bit cranky.

In September, hummingbirds are our constant companions, especially drawn to Susie’s feeder on the upstairs porch and the six sugar-stations on the Café promenade. It is not unusual to see 20 to 30 hummers on the Café porch with visitors, especially Germans, recording seemingly every hum and flutter.

In October, cottonwoods are king. The San Juan River valley, usually so green and brown, becomes vibrant yellow as the leaves change. This small cottonwood, called teec by our Navajo neighbors, is located between the parking lot and La Posada Pintada boutique inn. The last moments before sunset makes the entire valley glow.
El Zorro, the world’s luckiest cat, surveys his Bluff domain from his porch perch in November. Zorro, a product of the neighboring Melvin Gaines Cat Stable, had the good sense to be adopted by Susie, which is pretty much the most any dog or cat could ever hope for. As a friend back home in Kentucky says, “He looks like he fell into a tub of butter.”

In December, the setting full moon is met by the first rays of the sun warming the western bluffs. In the foreground, a small three-foot rock formation takes on a shadowy image of a roaring bear, an appropriate salute to Bears Ears country.

Well, there it is, another “Rick Bell Annual Year in Review.” See you next year for some brand-new adventures in the Land of Bluff.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Candid without Malice

Just as I arrived home last night the phone rang. It was our Café’s general manager, Miss Frances. “We have run out of propane,” she said, “gonna have to close the restaurant until we can get more delivered.” “Argh!” I groaned, looking at the clock and seeing that it was not yet 6:00 pm. “Give me a minute. I will see what I can do.” Something gnawed at my subconscious, but I could not get a handle on it.
Feeling the pressure and hoping that one of their trucks was still out and about, I quickly called our supplier and asked how soon they could get us more gas. I was frustrated that we would have to close, and upset that they had let us run out of such an essential element. I listened in as the secretary and driver discussed our situation in the background and overheard someone say, “Have they turned on and used up the backup tank?” “Argh!” again. That is what common sense had been trying to tell me. I apologized for my brusque manner and called Frances back. She had not known about the backup and was unsure as to how it could be switched. Steve was still at wrestling practice in Blanding, so I told Frances to get one of the cooks to help. “Those Reservation girls have been dealing with propane tanks and bottles all their lives; they will know what to do.” They did---problem solved.

The next morning, as I drove into the parking lot of Twin Rocks, I saw the propane truck trundling away in the opposite direction. “That was fast,” I thought to myself. I checked in with Miss Frances who said that all was well and that she was on her way to town to get realigned by her massage therapist and wouldn’t be back until around 11:00. I would need to let the staff in when they arrived and watch the kids until she returned. Because Frances enjoys sparring, we shared a raucous verbal exchange for a few minutes before she departed. After letting in the staff to do their prep work, I ran back over to the Trading Post to let Priscilla in. As Priscilla and I exchanged pleasantries, I received another call for help. The morning cooks were having trouble lighting one of the ovens and wanted me to give it a go. “Argh!” thrice. I have lit more propane pilot lights than I care to count and have developed a healthy respect for the “Dragons Breath” they can express. I have lost hide, hair, and singed a cornea or two through such endeavors. I always approach these interactions with great caution and apprehension.

I hustled back to the cafe and found Billy standing in front of the oven with his hands on his hips and muttering to himself. On the floor at his feet, near an open hatch was a cluster of spent toothpicks. “Why the toothpicks?” I asked. “Because we have no matches or lighters,” he responded. “Pearl lights a toothpick on the stove top and hands it down to me and I try to light the pilot, but it’s not working.” Letting myself down on my hands and knees, then lying on my side at the foot of the oven, I peered inside. I saw the incoming gas line which fed into the valve, pilot light thingy, then another gas line emerged from the other side arriving at an opening with a tapered nipple at the end. “There you are my pretty.” I said to myself. Then to Billy, I said, “Light me a toothpick and pass it on over please.” A dozen spent toothpicks later we were no closer to firing up the oven than before. “That must not be the pilot light.” I said looking up. The cooks just looked back, wisely saying nothing, nothing at all.

Leaning in closer and sniffing, I noticed a build-up of fumes, so I decided it might be best to turn everything off for a while and look for another port to get the beast lit. Since there was no flashlight available either, I went back to the Trading Post to borrow one from Priscilla. I knew she would have one in her large handbag of tricks. She did. While there, I complained about Frances not having had the propane delivery guy light the oven before he left, the manufacturer not placing the pilot light in its proper place, and the fact that I was yet unable to fire-up the darn thing. Priscilla passed me the flashlight and assured me that I would, soon enough, prove successful. “Just don’t blow yourself and everybody else up in the process,” she quipped as I turned to leave. “You know,” I told her, “you used to be the nicest, sweetest person I ever knew, but now…” “Well,” Priscilla shot back, “between Steve’s pointed barbs and your tendency toward sarcasm, it’s no wonder that I have picked up a few bad habits over the years.” As I went through the Kokopelli doors, I heard Rick making his way down the steps to join the team. Not wanting to get that quipster started, I left without comment.

I went back to the kitchen and assumed a bottoms-up position, while shining the flashlight under the oven. The fumes had dissipated, but I could still see no other avenue of lighting the darn thing. As I worked my way along the face of the oven, I was concerned that I might develop an acute case of the dreaded Plumber’s Crack. My shirt wanted to ride up my back and my jeans kept slipping down my hips. I was in a constant tug-of-war to keep from exposing more of my tail end than I cared to. Just then I heard Priscilla, who had come to stand right above me say. “Barry, if you are going to crawl around on the floor, do it with dignity.” “What do you mean?” I asked innocently, knowing perfectly well that there was a danger of flashing both under and over the oven. “Well, as you once said about a similar situation, don’t look now but there could be a bad moon arising.” I quickly bobbed up and reached to readjust my wardrobe. Just then Priscilla dropped the door to the oven. As my head came up, the door came down and we two connected in betwixt and between. “Dang it!” I cussed. “Well,” said my well-intentioned associate, “pay attention.” As I rubbed my noggin, Priscilla reached into the oven and removed the racks then the bottom panel. There in all its obvious wonder was the pilot light. We lit it in a flash and Priscilla walked away without another word.

Through the years I have discovered that Priscilla is a get-it-done kind of girl. Whenever I see her begin to tackle an issue, I recall the old Harry Belafonte and Odetta Holmes version of There’s a Hole in my Bucket. “Well fix it, dear Henry!” could easily be Priscilla’s personal slogan. From diligently working through a computer problem, to educating herself on how to change a water pump on her pickup truck, to deciphering tax forms, Priscilla will attack the issue and work it out post haste. Through these efforts, Priscilla has become an invaluable member of the Twin Rocks team and a huge asset to her family and friends. She is the matriarch of both and loved by all. Priscilla tells us that if we don’t stop writing these flattering stories about her that someone is going to attempt an end run. They will offer her more money in a more suitable situation and verdant climate. “Maybe Hawaii,” she says laughing in her merry way, “that would be difficult to turn down.” 

In this holiday season, those of us here at Twin Rocks wish you the very best of all things. We hope that you will learn from our many mistakes:
                #1. We now know that common sense and patience are the key to understanding. Avoid chaos at all cost.
                #2. If you, too, are forced down to the floor, do your best to remain (mostly) unexposed and strive to retain your dignity.
                #3. If it is your goal to bring light into the world, do it without the use of an accelerant.
                #4. Continually strive to learn, grow, and prosper. Assimilate the best, disperse the rest.
                #5. Above all else, we hope that you too are blessed with someone in your life who is tried, true, and candid without malice.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

My Life as a Leaf

A while ago I was thumbing through an old issue of Southwestern Art magazine when I noticed an advertisement for a bronze sculpture. The sculpture looked interesting, so I paused for a closer look. The ad showed three men sitting beneath a monumental bronze of a canoe with Daniel Boone in the bow and a Native American man in the stern. The ad included the following text, “Near the end of his life, Daniel Boone was quoted as saying, ‘My life was like a leaf on a stream.’” I nearly shouted out loud, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s my motto.” 

Many years ago, I decided I had little control over my fate, and that the title of my autobiography, should it ever merit writing, would be, My Life as a Leaf. The title refers to the belief that my life has generally taken a course similar to that of a leaf cast into a fast-moving stream. I sense I am carried along by this overwhelming, uncontrollable force which sends me tumbling over rocks, swirling in eddies, and bouncing from shore to shore, with no ability to stop or even slow the process. Fortunately, up to this point at least, there hasn’t been significant physical damage.

It didn’t take long to realize ole Dan’l must have had the thought well before I did. Well, okay, it took a little longer than I care to admit, but I eventually arrived at the appropriate chronology. I often feel the pull of a current as I go about my daily routine. The tug reminds me that larger forces are moving all around me, and that I have little or no control over them. That point was reinforced late one morning as I walked to the trading post and a “monster truck" approached me from behind. Since Bluff’s streets are narrow, the truck came fairly close and I began pondering just how fortunate I was to have avoided occupying the same space with that mass of steal and rubber. Shortly after my close encounter, I noticed a stinkbug with his back side sticking up in the air. The vehicle had obviously affected the insect as well. In response, the creature simply stuck its fanny in the air; apparently concluding the truck would somehow notice the obvious threat to its wellbeing. I am confident I have engaged in similarly vain attempts to protect myself when forces I cannot possibly comprehend are impacting me. Although I generally don’t stick my rear in the air, like my companion the stinkbug, I have all too often failed to understand the magnitude of things that have just passed over.

One such thing was making the decision to move back to Utah almost thirty years ago. At the time, I had no idea I was destined to become an “Indian trader” in Bluff, Utah, USA. That was one of those parts of the stream that sent me tumbling and swirling uncontrollably for an exceptionally long time. Having grown up in this region, I thought I had a good grasp on its land and people. In fact, I had none. As a result, on many occasions these people of the Desert Southwest have shown me new and unexpected ways to see things.

As an example, when my oldest daughter was young, a Hopi friend periodically invited us to the katsina dances at Moenkopi. I accepted the hospitality whenever possible, and often took her, a bag of flour, and a box of oranges to the ceremonies. On our first adventure, we got up early and arrived at the old village before sunrise for the Bean Dance. Our friend ushered us into his grandmother’s home to meet the family. His grandmother was of an advanced age, as was the community. Hopi villages are some of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in America and are a testament to the tenacity of these Indigenous people. Grandma lived in a single room with a wood-burning stove in the center and the table, bed, and other modest furnishing neatly placed around perimeter of the apartment. When I initially stepped inside, I noticed there was no running water and no bathroom facilities. “Poverty” was my first thought. A short while later we went outside and were shown a tree with a metal pipe protruding from it. It appeared the tube had long ago been stuck into a spring and over many years a cottonwood had grown around the outlet. Water flowed freely from the spout. Our friend explained that the tree was the village’s only water source, and that, although he was unsure exactly how it worked, he and the other members of the village were happy to have it.

We returned to Grandma’s house for the start of the ceremony, and I began to notice more about the structure and the family. I realized the room was built of love and contained virtually everything the elderly woman needed. I noticed melons under the bed and a curtain hung for those moments when she needed privacy. I also realized the woman’s children and grandchildren exuded love and tenderness. I began to see my initial evaluation had been terribly wrong, and that this person lived in a state of extreme wealth; wealth that we of the Anglo culture frequently misunderstand in our quest to accumulate more and more material things.

As the dance began, one of our friend’s aunties asked to hold my daughter. I, of course, agreed because I sensed her kindness and gentleness. My daughter looked a little concerned as she sat watching the Mudheads cascade from the kiva. I reassured her everything was okay, and she snuggled down into the woman’s generous lap. I believe that is as content and happy as I have ever seen my daughter.

As the dance progressed, I remember feeling the warmth of the old woman’s family surrounding me. I also remember thinking I had stepped back in time a century or two, and was experiencing something important, something large. The flow in that part of my stream was cool, comfortable, and serene, and I felt content. It was then that I realized just how happy one can be with a few melons under the bed and a family who loves you. At that moment, I knew something significant had passed over me, something I could not fully comprehend.